Art history and universal history

Alois Riegl, “Kunstgeschichte und Universalgeschichte,” Festgaben zu Ehren Max Büdingers (Innsbruck, 1898), n.p. Reprinted in K.M. Swoboda, ed., Gesammelte Aufsätze (Augsburg, 1928), 3-9.

My family doctor belongs to that minority among his professional comrades, who are not wrapped up exclusively in practice, but also devote continuing attention to the great theoretical questions of natural history. Such pure scientific passions do not always prove beneficial to the practical medical activities of doctors; I will therefore be forgiven if I emphasize that, as a patient, I have always been completely satisfied by the ministrations of my family doctor. He is however less satisfied with me, or rather he was until a short time ago. My metier did not please him. He saw in the history of art nothing more than the hopeless search for a dry, arid description of the indescribable, nothing more than the joyless imitation of that which was created in a state of elevated spiritual intoxication, and must therefore also be enjoyed in such a state. He did not conceive that art history could be anything besides a chronologically ordered recitation of external data regarding the creation of art, and in order to obtain full clarity on this matter, he finally decided to attend a semester-long course of art-historical lectures. They happened to concern Dutch painting. He did not miss one of the forty hours. Of course he afterwards reckoned many among them as wasted. Others, however, aroused his keenest interest. And here it is curious to note what in the lectures captured his fancy, and what seemed unimportant. There was, for example, the discussion of Rembrandt’s private life, which, as is well known, was already obscured in previous eras by mean-spirited biographers, and in our day has been marred by partisan favor and hatred. Thus far, the great master of Dutch painting has seemed enough of a subject of human interest, that those who begin by occupying themselves with his artistic development, have considered it worthwhile to seek clarification of the frequently contradictory statements regarding the external unfolding of his life. The theme belongs, on the whole, to what is called “interesting” (Bankruptcy and Concubinage playing a large role therein); and thus it has always been helped to hold the interest of sleepy auditors on humid summer afternoons. The effect on my doctor was quite the opposite; the entire digression seemed to him nothing more than anecdote, much better suited to beach reading than to a serious forty-five-minute treatment from the lectern. But things changed as soon as the great problems of light and shadow in Rembrandt’s painting entered the discussion, when Rembrandt’s portraits were compared with those of the Roman Empire, when the pedantic weighing of sources withdrew entirely, the horizon of contemplation grew in its immensity, and the most diverse phenomena were brought together through comparison: then he felt himself enlivened, then he was disappointed to hear the bell chime, then art history too found favor in his eyes.

My house-doctor is of course a layman when it comes to fine art, and we could declare ourselves indifferent to what he thinks about its history. I consider his opinions worth relating, however, because they are entirely symptomatic of the most contemporary developments. One notes: it is a researcher in the natural sciences (a thinking researcher, to be sure), who has no more patience with the slow, inductive method that has taken its cue from his own field, that primarily examines the individual phenomenon and only with the greatest caution takes the next step toward statements of direct cause and effect. Such a researcher seeks rather to bring together that which is widely separate, heeds not the enormous gulfs, and hopes to find – the Truth! If daily occupation with scientific research nevertheless permits the emergence of such a spiritual direction, then how much closer must it lie to other fields, such as the history of art, that do not altogether exclude fantasy from their brief! What my doctor thinks of the next task of the history of art, is in fact what most laymen think, who give thought to such things at all: and what is more, so think most art historians.

The history of art has not even celebrated its hundredth birthday as a science, and it has already gone through two fundamental transformations. The men who founded it – d’Agincourt,1 Rumohr,2 et al. – conceived the whole wide field of fine art as a great unity. They were specialists neither in the knowledge of sources nor in practical connoisseurship; rather, each formal phenomenon of fine art was for them equally important and worthy of attention, and thus they surveyed the entire spectacle of the world in all its variety, from the Pyramids to the Nazarenes,3 and conceived it from the point of view of a unified development. In this way they saw, above all, continuity; but the most striking points of discontinuity, through which the arts of individual peoples and eras are differentiated, did not escape their notice; those great style-periods that we today set at the ground of every historical consideration of the fine arts were already marked out by these first pioneers, who frequently deserved a better reputation than they have received since around the middle of our century. But the history of art could not continue from this general perspective if it wanted to lay claim to the status of a science. These first scholars of art [Kunstgelehrten] were familiar, it is true, with a great number of monuments; but it was precisely this extraordinary range that limited them to a superficial knowledge of the particulars. Furthermore, and although they had immediately grasped the value of written and printed sources, and eagerly studied the same, they uncritically accepted the traditions that had been handed down, because they lacked the time, the opportunity, and indeed also the training necessary to critique them. Thus two tasks emerged: first, specialized immersion in the individual monuments, or rather in groups of closely related monuments, and second, critical study of the sources. As men became accustomed to these new tasks (from Kuglerand Schnaase5 at the beginning, down to Thausing6 and Bode7), the first transformation in art-historical research came to pass. In place of the earlier universal schema, the specialized investigation; in place of the dilettante, the professional historian. From this time, the history of art enjoyed its greatest triumphs when it succeeded in determining the painter of a picture,8 or the correct date of construction of a monument, and the joys became considerably greater, when thereby one of the old biographies could be proven to be in error. The Monograph was deemed to be the most dignified and, from the start, the most promising form of investigation. Synthetic accounts of a more universal character were left to the writers of handbooks, on whom one looked down with a healthy dose of contempt, especially when they did not merely transcribe the works of those of their colleagues who were engaged in more specialized research. Thus it lay in the nature of the thing that the philological-historical method attained ever greater prestige. While in the beginnings of this second period only those youths turned to art-historical research, who from childhood had carried on a certain love affair with art, the increasing importance of source criticism gradually drew elements into these circles, for whom any knowledge of monuments remained as good as foreign their whole lives long. One requires the services of these researchers so that the history of art might not be underestimated, and least of all did the fine artists of the most recent decade have the right to raise such reprimands, who were given to the constant mockery of the “book-taught art historian,” even though they themselves slipped over their ears the magical hood of history, and were often glad when an art historian came to them bearing some imitation-worthy bit of information about old manners, practices, or the like. But an inner contradiction was revealed in such art historians without art knowledge [Kunsthistorikern ohne Kunstkennerschaft], and thereby the infallible signs had already appeared that a new transformation was imminent, simply because it had become once again necessary.

Today the completion of this second transformation approaches swiftly. It tends again to that side toward which the history of art had moved in its first beginnings. The specialized historical tendency of the last thirty or forty years appears just recently to have given way to a universal-historical tendency. The researchers of the previous generation conceived every art-historical phenomenon as an Individuum that, produced through particular causes, had also expressed effects characteristic only of itself. Their efforts were directed solely at becoming acquainted as exactly as possible with the given individual phenomenon in all its dimensions, and investigating the most immediate causes and effects, with the final goal in mind of assigning to the relevant phenomenon its correct and invariable place in the unending, chronologically arranged chain of monuments. The “most modern” among the art historians express dissatisfaction with this chronological fixing of monuments within a developmental series. They maintain that the determination of the most immediate causes and effects does not suffice to explain a monument’s essence and the conditions of emergence. They insist that artistic phenomena are not merely separated from each other by individual traits, but are connected to each other by common traits. Whereas the representatives of the philological-historical school attached a predominant significance to the individual points of discontinuity, the moderns believe that attention should be drawn once more to the uniting, generalizing characteristics. So, for example, they point to the surprising resemblance that is to be observed between certain painted portraits of the second century after Christ and those of the seventeenth century. Undoubtedly the most immediate causes, to which the Roman painting of the imperial era owed its direct origin, were entirely different from those whence Franz Hals and Velasquez derived their individual styles. Nevertheless it is Man who has called both phenomena into existence, and so the possibility imposes itself, slowly but with undeniable force, that the Roman as much as the Dutchman or the Spaniard may have heeded in both cases one and the same higher law. This law must of course have found its expression in the direct causes of both phenomena, but only a disguised expression, dulled through accidental, accompanying phenomena. In order to encounter it in its purity, the exclusion of the inessential ingredients on both sides is necessary, and it is, once again, only the comparison of the most immediate causes on each side that can lead us toward this goal. Thus can one justify the bringing together of such chronologically and spatially distinct periods of art as those of the second and the seventeenth centuries after Christ, and thus this universal-historical technique of contemplation appears to be the crowning achievement of art-historical research.

And yet it will have escaped no one, that we can only attain a correct knowledge of the highest, invisible laws when first the most immediate causes, from which these laws are to be derived, are securely fixed. The more secure the results of the specialized researches, the more certain the fulfillment of the ends of universal-historical contemplation. It would therefore be completely idle to pose the question, which of the two methods one should prefer. They are both necessary and mutually dependent. It remains only to hope, then, that they might always go hand in hand with each other. That would be the ideal relationship; but it will hardly ever be attained. Human nature dictates a constantly alternating fluctuation between extremes. Just as, in a wave, peak follows upon valley; so too, with natural necessity, today’s one-sided universal-historical manner of contemplation follows upon yesterday’s one-sided specialized-historical manner. Specialized research accumulated abundant material over the course of decades, and now the irresistible urge awakes again, to break out from the narrowness of individual phenomena into the liberating heights of the comprehensive overview. Indeed, the initial absorption in detail had precisely this motivation, to thereby gain more secure foundations for higher points of view. The earliest among the second generation (thus Schnaase, and even Springer9 himself) never entirely relinquished the free view into the distance; for that reason, their art historical writing comes the closest to the ideal. But gradually people lost sight of the goal on account of the method. The specialized investigation as such became a goal in itself, and the individual monument in itself became a sufficiently worthy and satisfying object of contemplation. In following this course, art historical research presents exactly the same image as the art of painting. Painting too has gone through periods, which we label as “naturalistic,” and for which each object out of the nature that surrounds us appears worthy of artistic rendering. At such times the artistic transformation of everything, however so insignificant in itself, elicits attention and applause from human observers. To this day, these naturalistic periods have always, with mathematical regularity, been overtaken by the so-called idealistic periods, in which the distinctive mark of art in its opposition to nature (which we describe according to personal preference as stylization, improvement, or arrangement of nature; and results from technique, material, or the individual conception of the artist) pushes the artwork, now dominant and decisive, into the foreground. Thus painting has always proceeded in just as one-sided a fashion as art-historical writing. At one time it pursued, ruthlessly and untroubled by all remaining factors, one task alone, namely, to come as close as possible to the natural appearance of things, at another time it expected its total effect to issue from stylized motifs and did not hesitate to violate nature, when she did not wish to obligingly follow the stylistic intentions of the artist.

Between wave-peak and wave-valley lies a dead point, in which les extrêmes se touchent. The fresher the creative impulses by which research is moved, so much more quickly will they pass over the dead point. It is however at hand, and there will always be some who believe it necessary to stop here. So it is again, and names could be named. They play in art-historical research the same role as skeptics in philosophy or anarchists in politics. Because the path followed up to this point appears misguided to them, they despair altogether of the passability of the terrain. For forty years we have struggled to show a continuous chain of development that naturally rises from the simple and primitive to the complicated and perfect. And now we encounter phenomena in art history that appear to cast all developmental representations onto the dust heap. How, for example, could the same people, who in the time of the Roman Empire had known how to faithfully copy the human face up to the point of illusion, a few centuries later be applaud the rigid Byzantine puppets?10 Yet Italian and Dutch painting offers close parallels. The skeptics among the art historians draw from this the conclusion that there is no rising path of development in the fine arts of humanity. But perhaps this view is, just like skepticism and anarchism, merely a passing phase. After brief reflection these researchers too will cheerfully resume the supposedly Sisyphean task; they too will expect from the universal-historical consideration of art history a contribution to the solution of the great riddle of the world, whose mastery every human science has, at root, as its goal.

[1] {Jean-Baptiste-Louis-George Seroux d’Agincourt, 1730-1814. Disciple of Caylus and author of an Histoire de l’art par les monuments (Paris, 1823).}

[2] {Karl Freidrich von Rumohr, 1785-1843. Often credited as founder of modern archival research in art history; author, most notably, of the Italienische Forschungen on medieval and Renaissance art (Berlin, 1827).}

[3] {An early nineteenth-century movement in German Romantic painting that rejected neoclassicism and attempted a revival of a spiritual, Christian art on the model of medieval and early Renaissance painting. Prominent Nazarenes include Peter von Cornelius, Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow, and Friedrich Overbeck.}

[4] {Franz Theodor Kugler, 1800-58. Author of an early Handbuch der Kunstgeschichte (Stuttgart, 1842), which he claimed to be the first comprehensive survey of world art. On Kugler, Schnaase, et al., see M. Schwarzer, “Origins of the art history survey text,” Art Journal 54 (1995), 24-29.}

[5] {Karl Schnaase, 1798-1875. Author of a major theoretical work, the Niederländische Briefe (Stuttgart, 1834), and a Geschichte der Bildenden Künste (Düsseldorf, 1843-64).}

[6] {Moriz Thausing, 1835-84. Second chair in the History of Art at the University of Vienna and teacher of Riegl; connoisseur and friend of Morelli, scholar primarily of northern Renaissance art, and particularly Dürer.}

[7] {Wilhelm von Bode, 1845-1929. Director General of Prussian Museums; scholar and connoisseur of seventeenth-century Dutch and Italian Renaissance painting.}

[8] {Thus, for example, the “Holbein convention” held in Dresden in 1871.}

[9] {Anton Springer, 1825-91. Rival of Schnaase; author of a Handbuch der Kunstgeschichte (Stuttgart, 1855). See Podro, Critical Historians, 152-58.}

[10] {“Byzantine puppets”: cf. the Preface to the First Part of Vasari’s Lives: “The arts of design... continued gradually to grow worse... as bear witness... many works... that are to be seen in the city and in the whole Exarchate of Ravenna…. There issued from the hands of the masters of these times those puppet-like and uncouth figures that are still to be seen in the works of old.” G. Vasari, Lives of the painters, sculptors, and architects, tr. de Vere (London, 1996), I.39.}

-- Max Budinger (1828-1902), in whose Festschrift this essay appeared, was an Austrian historian and teacher of Riegl’s. Free translation and {notes} November 2007 / October 2014 / April 2019